David Bailey:

The British Is Here!

David Bailey still fascinates, whether as a photographer or as the near-mythological media figure mention of his name evokes. I found vivid testimony to this while looking for copies of his 20 or so books in the local art reference library - all bar one had been stolen.

The missing books featured nude and clothed photographs of some of this century's most desirable women (often linked romantically to Bailey), including Jean Shrimpton, Catherine Deneuve, Marie Helvin, Penelope Tree and his beautiful current wife, Catherine Bailey. Perhaps this was the reason for their theft.

It may also be that Bailey's legend has been writ so large that he lives on as the fashion photographer, even when he hardly shoots fashion any more. Bailey as folk hero was born in 1962 when he and Jean Shrimpton swept in triumph into the New York offices of Vogue, to editor Diana Vreeland's cries of "The British are here! The British are here!"

His reputation grew further when director Michaelangelo Antonioni modelled the character of Thomas in Blow Up on mid-'60s Bailey, with that film featuring scenes of the model Veruschka and actress Jane Birkin writhing on the floor under Thomas and his furiously clicking camera.

The myth grew larger again when the British press invented the "Terrible Trio": self-taught, working-class Cockneys who were the first of the new-wave of heterosexual fashion photographers after decades of aristocratic gays with their heads "in a cloud of pink chiffon", to quote Bailey. While the other two, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan, just as quickly lost their place in the spotlight, Bailey gained fresh notoriety from his television commercial for the lynx anti-fur campaign - "It takes a dozen dumb animals to make a fur coat and just one to wear it" - which marked the tailing off of his fashion photography and the rise of his directing career.

In spite of his evident success, Bailey is uncomfortable with the tag of fashion photographer and has never been the complete insider of the British creative establishment that his reputation would seem to indicate. The only book not stolen from the library was his most atypical and yet one of his favourites, the one that hints at a Bailey the anti-thesis of the media image. NW1 is a solitary roam through the empty streets of his former home district in London, with all the loneliness of an outsider on the inside.

Bailey has been written about endlessly and his public life exposed to view again and again, but he revealed another side in this interview from his Devon hideaway.

Karl: David, what are you doing at present?

David:These days I do film work mostly. I've done hardly any still photographs for the last 15 years - it's been mostly television commercials.

Karl: However, I've seen your credit line on some fashion photographs lately.

David: I love photography. I just wish I had more time to do it, but commercials take up so much energy

Karl: ... and time.

David: ... exactly. I've just made a little half-hour short film with Juliet Stevenson - do you know of her? It's pretty good. Years ago, I used to do a lot of documentaries for television, in the late '60s, early '70s ...

Karl: Things on Warhol ...

David: ... [Cecil] Beaton, [Luchino] Visconti, [Pierre] Cardin, lots. Some I would prefer not to remember, but the Warhol one was rather good. I'm working on a thing on Picasso with Fay Weldon for Melvyn Bragg [presenter of the South Bank Show on British TV], I've been working on that for three years. And I've got a little film project with Jerry Hall, a kind of noir film called Fiddle City.

It's so pessimistic making movies in this country because they hardly ever happen. I've got about 15 film projects at the moment and if one goes through I'd be more than happy. I spent three years on one with Dennis Hopper and it fell five weeks before we were to start shooting. Commercials are fine. I love them and all their aggravation.

Karl: What commercials have you done lately, then?

David: I did a Rover one, like a rip-off of a Hitchcock film, with a girl being chased across a rooftop by a monster. That's the best one this year. I did quite a good one in Ethiopia for Christian Aid Abroad four months ago, and I did a music video clip years ago for Frankie Goes To Hollywood that was pretty good, I thought. But music videos are always a problem because (a) they've never got any money, and (b) they want to do it next week and I'm usually booked.

Karl: But you've been involved with other feature film projects in the past haven't you?

David: Well, I've played around with it all my life. In '62 I tried to make A Clockwork Orange with Andy Warhol [subsequently made by Stanley Kubrick], and I tried to do Out Of Africa in the '70s. But the sheer act of making a film, whether it's any good or not, is virtually impossible in England at the moment, and I don't particularly want to live in Los Angeles. I like LA. and I like Americans, but I'm quite happy living in England, though I don't particularly like the English.

Karl: But with such a large place, on Dartmoor in Devon, it can't be too hard staying away from them, surely?

David: Right! I'm not here that much though, just weekends and things, or if I'm shooting here, like now. As we talk a script has come through the fax from Saatchi's

Karl: It's a nice feeling when work comes in, isn't it?

David: Yeah! You always have this problem if you do anything creative that as soon as you finish the job, you're out of work, no matter how good or how secure you are. Every creative person I've met always has the same feeling, that maybe this is their last job.

Karl: Which of your books of photographs do you still love?

David: Well, there's only about five good ones. Nudes 1981-1984 I like; Goodbye Baby; If We Shadows I love; NW1; and there's a little book I did in Sudan, called Imagine, for Band-Aid.

Karl: You said once that a fashion photographer needs to have a homosexual attitude to women, even if he is heterosexual.

David: I prefer to work with gay fashion designers because they have a fantasy of a woman whereas straight designers have a vision of a woman they want to sleep with, which is not always the right image for what they're trying to sell. A fantasy of a woman is much more applicable to fashion.

Karl: When you started working in photography you assisted John French.

David: Yeah, he was an incredibly decent type of man. I don't think he was very good as a photographer, but he had a good attitude. His photography sort of slowed me down a bit, because I had to break away from his way of doing things, but I benefited from his attitude. I was only with him for eleven months, then I went out on my own.

Karl: Straight into editorial fashion photography?

David: More or less. About three months later Vogue gave me a contract.

Karl: Do you still have a relationship with British Vogue?

David: Well, I don't really know. I do the occasional picture for them. They invited me to lunch the other day and asked would I like to do some fashion pictures for them. But I haven't gotten anything from them for the last three months. They don't like it that I don't suck up to them. I've never sucked up to anyone.

There's a lot of politics at Vogue. I got on with Diana Vreeland but now they often don't want something good, they want something new.

That's the current disease in the media and I'm afraid that's what fashion is all about. It's renewed, but it's usually nostalgic, which is safer. Fashion is great when you're young but I prefer portraits now, or landscapes like in NW1. I love doing portraits because you gain something from the people you photograph, but with fashion, ...

Oh, I tell you what I have done recently that's good. I've done three campaigns for Paul Smith, and three catalogues as well. The Paul Smith stuff is terrific; he's one of the few English people that's got lots of spunk and go.

Karl: Speaking of nostalgia, what do you think of the way certain fashion photographers are resurrecting the looks of the past?

David: I hate the past. I like to shoot today. That's why I don't like photographers that take pictures that look like they were taken in Hollywood in the '30s. You have to take pictures for your own time, and I can't see any point in doing a picture like Clarence Sinclair Bull.

Karl: What about when a client demands it?

David: If you're being paid to be a whore, it's OK. I do that. But as to editorial, it's pointless to do pictures that look like someone else's. It's not a document anymore, it's become second-rate theatrical rubbish. The most a fashion photograph can be is a social document of the time and period, and if it's not, it's not anything.

Karl: David, how did you become so famous?

David: I guess it's from not caring. If you try to get famous you won't, but if you don't care you probably will.

You've got to stick to your guns, too, because once you back down you're finished. The drawback of being famous is you get criticised for your fame rather than your work. People judge your lifestyle, not what you do. There used to be a lot of resentment if you had flash cars and beautiful women.

Karl: I understand that your latest exhibition is rather controversial.

David: They're photographs of cocks and vaginas. They're kind of medical, done absolutely close-up with no pretensions to lighting or anything. I just thought it's something everybody's got but you never see them in photographs. And, you'd be surprised at the personality of them; you can't believe that every one is different.

I got no reaction to the show in the papers, none! The English! They didn't see them, they tended to look away all the time. There was no reaction at all, not even horror. I would have liked there to have been horror, but the English are not particularly responsive to anything visual, they still live in the world of Shakespeare. In England, being an artist is considered something rich people do on weekends.

My wife has this great theory, she says taste comes from food. When people love food, like the French and Italians do, they concern themselves with other aesthetic things. The English don't care much about food so it reflects on the rest of it, on all aspects of life. Her theory has definitely got something going for it. Food leads to other things.

Written 1994. © Copyright Karl-Peter Gottschalk 1997.